WASHINGTON -- The early review of President Barack Obama's withdrawal plans for U.S. forces from Afghanistan is that, in an effort to give each side something to cheer about, it pleased no one at all.
The New York Times' Maureen Dowd encapsulated the dynamic when she called Obama "bi" in her Sunday column -- not in the sexuality sense but in his never-ending quest for binary partisan approval. The many disapproving reactions from Democrats and Republicans and the military only further cemented the image of a president hopelessly trying to straddle the middle ground.
But there is one key actor in the Afghanistan strategy review who likely emerged quite pleased: Vice President Joseph Biden, by nearly all accounts, proved successful in moving the debate away from one pole and towards his geo-strategic worldview.
While Biden didn't get everything he wanted -- he advocated for a more precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region and would have liked a more detailed outline of how U.S. forces would be re-applied towards limiting al Qaeda's influence along the Pakistan border -- the vice president fared much better than during during the first major Afghanistan-related decision. At that time, he unsuccessfully questioned the "strategic sense" of sending 30,000 troops into the country. So by comparison, last week's announcement was a victory.
"His argument is that we have made progress in seriously damaging al Qaeda central, and we can say so and begin to aggressively bring home our troops," said one senior administration official. By the end, the official added, "The vice president wasn't alone in this."
Steve Clemons, publisher of popular political blog the Washington Note and a well-connected chronicler of the major foreign policy personalities and debates, also played up the vice president's influence.
"Biden broke the back on this notion that the number of troops equals greater security deliverables," Clemens said. "He has been a constructive player through all of this and the guy who consistently relayed these themes… I think the president fundamentally recognized the importance of the argument."
Biden's role inside the White House has been the source of its fair share of mockery. It stems from his propensity for verbal gaffes and was molded into popular iconography in the pages of the satirical newspaper, The Onion.
In spite of the gentle chiding, the vice president's portfolio keeps on expanding. The Iraq drawdown, the accounting of stimulus cash, negotiations over the debt ceiling or the START nuclear non-proliferation treaty all fell into Biden's lap. After the other longstanding Hill veteran in the White House -- former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel -- left to run for mayor of Chicago, the vice president became the symbolic liaison to the Hill as well.
Afghanistan remained one of those policy purviews that eluded Biden's thumbprint. Though aides in the administration stress, till they are sore in the throat, that the vice president didn't really lose out when the president announced his initial surge of U.S. forces, it was obvious that Obama had disregarded the idea that the scope of America's mission in the region needed to be narrowed. Biden -- then and now -- saw Pakistan as the emerging, if not already the predominant problem. The United States was spending 30 times less there than it was in Afghanistan, despite the overwhelming presence of al Qaeda in the territory of America's nuclear-armed ally.
According to sources familiar with the most recent round of Afghan talks, Biden's basic argument has been more or less the opposite of the military brass' conventional wisdom. Instead of giving the Karzi government room to breath by keeping U.S. forces in, he saw the initial surge -- combined with Osama bin Laden's death -- as a chance to recalibrate. Announcing that troops would be moving out could accelerate the Karzi administration's training of Afghan security forces, as well as diplomatic outreach to reconcilable Taliban members.
"The point," said one foreign policy official who has consulted with the White House on Afghan policy, "is to withdraw as much as you can on that track. If you don't start, you won't get the Afghans in the lead."
The Biden philosophy does run against what General David Petraeus and others have argued. It is also skeptical of traditional counterinsurgency or COIN strategy, which dictates that armed forces take and hold a region until all links between insurgent forces and the remaining population are shattered.
Pressed on this apparent division, the White House has stressed that the daylight inside the national security team is minimal, if it exists at all. Biden may have won out on the negotiations, but after the announcement was made Petreaus endorsed the president's withdrawal decision. The rest of the military brass also won some major concessions, including leeway over which troops are withdrawn during the first two years.
But among the group of advisers that the president turns to on these matters, it seems clear that Biden's power is growing. For starters, the other major players are either sidelined or departing, including former United States National Security Advisor General James Jones and former Afghanistan commanders Stanley McChrystal and Petreaus, who is going to be leading the Central Intelligence Agency as a civilian.
"All of the big personalities that were doing this are gone," said Clemons, "except Biden."
The vice president also has an inherent advantage that others lack: Obama has an agreement with Biden that the vice president is the last adviser he will consult with on major matters. When it came to the initial Afghan surge, that meant weighing on Obama to sharpen his scope and narrow his goals. Last week, it meant reassuring Obama that a drawdown along the lines he had proposed was strategically sound.
"He echoed and confirmed the president's thinking," said the senior administration official. "There is no misreading where the vice president stands on this. It is not like he was having to make his case."